Does MLB still need divisions?

BY foxsports • October 15, 2015

It seems a little unfair. In 2015, the Pittsburgh Pirates had the second-best record in all of baseball. Arguments aside about whether that makes them the second-best team in all of baseball, Andrew McCutchen and friends are currently sitting at home watching the rest of the playoffs. The Cubs—the team that beat them in the Wild Card game—are in the NLDS against the Cardinals—the team that had the best record in the big leagues and who just happened to be located in a city in the same general geographic area as Pittsburgh.

Had Pittsburgh been located a little closer to the East Coast, this wouldn’t have been an issue. The Pirates would have won any other division in baseball. In fact, one might say that their fate is the fault of some bad geography on the part of MLB. Pittsburgh is located further east than Atlanta and yet the Braves play in the “Eastern” Division. And this year, because that’s how these things work, it just so happened that the team with the third-best record in baseball also happened to have been formed in the National League a century or so ago and is in the “central” area of the country.

And they had Jake Arrieta.

There is no perfect playoff format and there are plenty of ideas floating around on how to “fix” the playoff system, especially around now. Of course, for every solution to this year’s problem, there’s another scenario which could realistically happen that brings up another set of problems. Without the second Wild Card, the Cubs, who had the third-best record in both the majors and the NL Central Division, would be wondering if maybe the baseball gods really did have it out for them. But suppose that the Cubs had been a mere 85-win team. They would have still won the second NL Wild Card and still had the same chance to take down the 98-win Pirates. There’s always a loophole.

Still, even if there is no perfect system and even if there will always be some vulnerability, the question should then be whether the current system or some alternate is the least flawed. But that becomes its own can of worms. There are arguments that can be backed up numerically (10 is more than 8) and then there are arguments that can only be backed up aesthetically (10 teams in the playoffs are better than 8).

And it’s more than just the playoff system. Trying to “fix” the playoffs often has serious implications for the regular season, both in how it is structured schedule-wise and then how certain things like the trading deadline will play out. You can often make the case that it even affects things like the offseason. It’s now common to hear of teams thinking of making a play for a free agent or making a trade at the deadline with a view to try to snag the second Wild Card spot.

Let’s take a look at one proposal that would have “solved” this year’s NL problem: eliminating divisions altogether. No more East, Central, and West. If MLB wanted to continue having five teams from each league make the playoffs, and make the fourth and fifth teams play a one-game “Wild Card” game, then they could do that. This year, the Mets would have played the Dodgers in that one game for the right to play the Cardinals, while the Cubs would have lined up to play the Pirates in a five-game series. Instead, the exact opposite happened. (Notably, the American League playoffs would have proceeded exactly as they did. In fact, since 2012 when the second Wild Card debuted, the only other change that would have happened under this system was that the 2012 AL Central champion Detroit Tigers would have been shut out of the playoffs, with the Baltimore Orioles skipping straight to the Division Series, rather than playing in the Wild Card game, and the Tampa Bay Rays facing off against the Texas Rangers in the play-in.)

But let’s see what would happen if we were to get rid of divisions and try to do it by the numbers.

Regional rooting
On some philosophical level, the only thing that a division necessarily does is ensure that one team in each league from the East Coast, from the Northwest Territory and Louisiana Purchase areas, and from the West Coast are included in the playoffs. At the beginning of the year, we know for sure that at least one of the Angels, Astros, Athletics, Mariners, and Rangers will be in the playoffs. When divisions were introduced in 1969, one reason given was that MLB could create a playoff series (the League Championship Series) that matched up two teams from different geographical regions of the United States. (For our younger readers: back in those days, there were only two divisions. East, including such teams as the Chicago Cubs and the St. Louis Cardinals and West, including such teams as Cincinnati Reds and the Atlanta Braves.)

The truth of the matter is that MLB is a business like any other and the numbers that truly drive its decisions have dollar signs in front of them. The idea was that even if my hometown team wasn’t in the playoffs, I might still tune into a nationally televised game ($$$) to see a team who was at least based on the same side of the country as me. It seems a strange argument now that MLB has gone to a national marketing model with products like MLB Network and MLB TV, which weren’t even thought of 10 years ago. Now, it’s possible to watch any team at any time. Except if you live in Iowa. Seems like regionalism isn’t the preferred marketing angle any more.

But maybe what MLB is really hoping for is to limit how many dead markets there are for playoff baseball. For the Mets-Dodgers, of course, there will be plenty of viewers in New York and Los Angeles, but how will a series play in a market like Milwaukee? Sure, there will be plenty of Wisconsinites—some of them baseball fans who would watch any two teams play, some who will watch because it’s the playoffs—who will watch. But the reality of demography is that there are probably some New York and LA expats who live behind the cheddar curtain. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, more than a quarter of Americans (including me!) live outside of the state that they were born in. Not surprisingly, the age at which Americans are most likely to make an inter-state move is between the ages of 25 and 29, well after a childhood rooting preference has been established. What’s more, the rate of inter-state movement is actually at a bit of a low lately. There have always been people migrating from one place to another. If the original goal of divisions was to try to capitalize on regional marketing, it seems like a bad strategy at this point.

The TV Schedule
If there is one benefit to having playoff teams from different regions, it’s the fact that when MLB is scheduling its playoff games, there’s probably one in California that can be played at 6:00 pm local time and play at 9:00 pm on the East Coast. On a day when four division series games were scheduled, if all four were in the Eastern time zone, it would mean that MLB might have to ask a team to play at 9:00 pm local time or run games against each other. Or 11:00 am. It’s not that it can’t happen now, but it’s less likely when you can guarantee that some of the entrants live on the west of the Rockies line.

Competitive Balance
Assuming that MLB would keep the same basic playoff structure, with the top three teams being passed into the division series and the fourth and fifth team having a one-game playoff, what would happen to competitive balance? One of the nice things about divisions is that there are two routes into the playoffs. A team might assess itself as an 85-win team in its current form, but maybe that’s better than the other four losers that they are grouped with. The division structure gives them an incentive to take some risks, which usually makes for better baseball. (That’s a value judgment right there, though. Then again, if it really is, as Puff Daddy told us, all about the Benjamins, no one likes watching a team rebuild.)

While this “hope for 85 wins and some bad luck for the other four teams” stratagem wouldn’t have been much of an issue in the past few years, from 2005-2009, there was a division winner each year who would not have made the playoffs in the division-less system, including the 2005 San Diego Padres, who finished 82-80. Regardless of the specific circumstances of each team’s run to the playoffs, sometimes perception is more important than reality. In the division-less system, a team can (perhaps in a state of delusion) say that “85 wins might just be enough if we happen to catch the other four guys in a down cycle.” The 88 to 90 win range—what it would take to qualify in a division-less system—is a little bit tougher.

Then again, the flip side of that is the situation that the Milwaukee Brewers find themselves in right now. The Brewers are trapped in a division with the Cardinals, Cubs, and Pirates, all of whom are poised to be good for a while. Why bother? Even a team that finds itself as the second or third banana in their division (behind an insurmountable juggernaut like say, the Washington Nationals) has to start thinking that its only route to October is the Wild Card. That means their competition lives in all the other divisions; or essentially, that they already live in a division-less world.

If the goal is to keep as many teams from… what’s the polite term for “tanking?”… divisions do help to provide some incentive for even the somewhat good teams to keep pushing longer into the season. Still, we’re only talking about two or three teams that would conceivably fall into this category at the absolute most. Right?

The Actual Schedule
The trouble with “fixing” the Pirates/Cubs problem by eliminating divisional play is that it would have another side effect. Right now, MLB operates with an un-balanced schedule. Teams play more games against divisional opponents than those outside their division. For all the tears shed when interleague play came along, no one seemed to notice that, on a functional level, divisional play all along was a league forming two sub-leagues within it and allowing inter-league play among those sub-leagues. The Mets and Padres might play each other, but other than those head-to-head games, neither one had any effect on whether the other would make the playoffs.

The unbalanced schedule is supposed to be a way to make the division races matter, and the teams that you play more often are based on who happens to be in your neighborhood geographically. Eliminate the divisions and about the only fair scheduling mechanism would be the fully balanced schedule. This isn’t unheard of, mind you. In the 1990s, the schedule was much more balanced. But at that time, it meant that a team like the Detroit Tigers made two trips to Cleveland each year, and two trips to Texas. Now—to over-simplify a tiny bit—they make three trips to Cleveland and one to Anaheim. This might seem an aesthetic argument (is the unbalanced or balanced schedule more fair?) but it does have a very quantifiable effect. Anaheim is a lot further away from Detroit than Cleveland. The biggest objection commonly raised by players to the balanced schedule is that it means a lot more long plane flights. And yes, that may seem a little silly, but when your job often requires twice-weekly changing of cities, the travel can get a little wearing.

Without looking at an actual proposed schedule, it’s hard to quantify exactly how big the effect would be, but it’s clear that the answer would be “more.” But that sort of consideration has probably kept MLB’s schedule un-balanced for the last decade or so. In theory, that could be counter-balanced by the occasionally discussed trimming of the season back to 154 games, which would allow for more travel days, but that would require teams to give up four home dates per year, and—in theory—5 percent of their revenue.

Fixing a Problem with a Problem
We could “fix” the Cubs-Pirates Wild Card game problem by eliminating divisions, but at what cost? It’s not like this has happened all that often. The three best records all landing in the same division is something of a freak occurrence. Fixing it would cause a couple of teams to lose some of their motivation to go for it, potentially foul up the playoff TV schedule, fundamentally alter the schedule, and make the players complain about more travel or the owners complain about taking away their gate receipts. All for something that might happen once every decade or so.

I get that fixing the Cubs-Pirates issue feels pressing right now because it just happened. But, as always, it’s good to think these things all the way through.

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